How Do You Define Nursing?

Virginia Henderson

Virginia Henderson

By Maureen Shawn Kennedy, AJN editor-in-chief

Fifty years ago this month, in the August issue of AJN, Virginia A. Henderson, one of nursing’s giants, explained how she came to her definition of nursing: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge.” (We’ve made the article, “The Nature of Nursing,” free until September 30. Click through to the PDF under “Article Tools.”)

Many (older) nurses may remember Henderson as one of the authors of Harmer and Henderson’s The Principles and Practices of Nursing, a mainstay textbook for nursing schools, or for her internationally published book, Basic Principles of Nursing Care, which was translated widely. She also taught nursing at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and then later at Yale University, where she developed a comprehensive index of nursing research. But her accomplishments went far beyond that. Her writings helped change how nursing was being regarded—from an occupation that existed only to provide physicians with helpmates to a scholarly, independent profession.

I had the good fortune to meet Henderson in the early 1990s, when she came to AJN’s offices to meet with Fred Pattison, AJN’s librarian at the time, who was also the editor of the International Nursing Index. She was warm, engaging, down-to-earth, and had a wonderful sense of humor—not what I expected from a legend! Her personality shines through in this video, shot in 1978 for a series on nursing leaders produced by Sigma Theta Tau International.

Her biography from her 1996 induction into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame notes: “A modern legend in nursing, Virginia A. Henderson has earned the title ‘foremost nurse of the 20th century.’ Her contributions are compared to those of Florence Nightingale because of their far-reaching effects on the national and international nursing communities.”

(Subscribers to AJN have full access to AJN’s complete archives, chronicling 114 years of nursing—very worthwhile browsing!)

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2016-11-21T13:04:01+00:00 August 27th, 2014|career, Nursing|2 Comments

About the Author:

Managing editor, American Journal of Nursing

2 Comments

  1. Lois Roelofs August 31, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Oh, the memories. I still have my Harmer and Henderson as we called it back in the early 60s.

  2. Hugh Scott August 27, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Bravo! Well Done! Outstanding! 🙂 ❤

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